Once Upon a Time In The 80s: Sequels (Part 4 of 17)

“Leaves the door wide open for a sequel,” is a phrase that was not part of the cinematic vernacular even in the 1950s. It really does sound like something you’d say after watching a slasher movie. These films, of course, were very popular in the 1980s, but just because you didn’t see a horror movie didn’t mean you were safe from someday hearing of a sequel.
 

In the 1970s the ‘pre-sold’ product became a big thing with studios there were many literary adaptations so logically sequels would soon follow. In 1981 there were 42 sequels produced worldwide; in 1989 there were 124. By the end of the 80s there were six Police Academys, five Halloweens, Howlings, Star Treks and Nightmare on Elm Streets; if you wanted to kill someone you could strap them to a chair and make them watch these in succession. There’s probably more but it would get redundant. As opposed to the positive legacy of special effect, the 80s left us with a trend that has only gotten worse. While there are no new series that are growing ridiculously, although Friday the 13th has reached 10 [now 11 with a 12th in development], it is much easier for a film to get a sequel now such as Legally Blond which didn’t even hit 100 million, but was made on no budget so the profitability was easier to hit. Another new trend is immediately announcing a sequel: when Spider-man opened with $115 million dollars in its first weekend the studio announced plans for a sequel. Opening weekend sequel plans have become commonplace and they can be directly blamed on the 80s who exacerbated sequel-mania in a need for guaranteed money.

While the contrived sequel can be called a spawn of the 80s on the good side there is also the series. The difference is that a series is a story that is not supposed to be in one film or book as the case may be. While there was only Indiana Jones and Star Wars these films helped develop the business concept of ‘the franchise,’ more so to me than the other films than those sequelized ad neauseum. The franchise by my estimation is a designed series of films that will also be a cash cow. To me these two series planned by Lucas and Spielberg are what set the stage for some of the better films of our times.

The studios relied on the sequel for easy money because the horror films that made them all their money were pick-ups. The Slasher Trinity of Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were all independent productions which cost their respective distributors practically nothing. Thus, when they each took off like rockets they didn’t want to see the profits stop. And like at anytime in film history, you never know what’s going to be a hit and what isn’t, no matter how much test research you do. So they figure they’d just repeat what worked. And people went, and will go, if only out of curiosity.

While I can justify all these sequels that seemingly have no point I in no way excuse them. Because what started as just a rash has become a plague and now any film which shows and inkling of profit potential is a candidate to be butchered and repackaged in a sequel. For the most part I very much enjoy these films of the 80s, but a tendency towards needless repetition is something I can live without.
 

Work Cited:  http://us.imdb.com/List?year=1989&&tv=on&&keywords=sequel&&nav=/Sections/Years/1989/include-commongenres&&heading=8;sequel;1989

Note:  This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part four you can read part one, two and three here.

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Once Upon a Time in the 80s- Special Effects (Part 3 of 17)

Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part three you can read part one here and part two here.

The 1980s were marked by the emergence of the computer into mainstream American culture. The increasing accessibility and availability of this tool made its impact on the entertainment industry in a very powerful way. In 1984 one of the most famous commercials of the year was Apple Computer’s ‘Big Brother’ a play on Orwell’s 1984. While unlike the 90s where computers would soon come to reside in well over half of America’s households, and the science fiction aspect and the improbability of the device was demolished; they were becoming a much more practical tool.

The key in revolutionizing computerized effect lay with one man. In 1977 George Lucas formed Industrial Light and Magic to create the effects for Star Wars. Working out of Marina County California his company soon started to work on effects for many films. Their first heavy volume of releases was in 1985 with Back to the Future, Cocoon, Explorers, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes which with ‘The Stained Glass Man’ had the first fully computer generated character. The rest was history in 1986 comes Aliens which took the computer generated character to the next level and it’s been an ongoing game of “Can You Top This?” ever since.

The fact that the special effects craze came about in the late 70s and grew exponentially in the 80s is like kismet. This was a decade that was jam-packed with action films but also had an abundance of fantasy films still around. This new technology opened up possibilities for narrative never before seen and they were used, for example, a journey inside a human body in Innerspace. The kind of film that was in demand with the American public was also the kind of film that was well-suited to the new special effects technology.

Before the apathetic generation-x-ridden 90s when films of social dementia disguised as poetry like American Beauty would run amuck, the 80s was a decade riddled with myth and fantasy, here’s a sample: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Neverending Story, Legend, Dark Crystal, Back to the Future, Flight of the Navigator and so on. Escapism being a large part of the cinematic formula coupled with the youthful audience allowed for these advances and this type of storytelling which is only recently beginning to creep back into being.

The shift away from fantastical storytelling that occurred in the mid-90s and lasted until about 1999 in a way has impeded the progress of CGI. While in some films it blends in perfectly and is breathtaking in others it sticks out like a sore thumb. Sure, there are films and studios that will be cheap, but had there been more constant works the floor of marginally acceptable CGI would’ve risen. The man who is always breaking the glass ceiling of CGI excellence is George Lucas, and he says he tries to push other directors with every film he does, hopefully people will follow suit.

The computer generated image is one of the few things from the 80s which was expanded upon in the 90s. The technology has some very practical uses such as digital stunts and extras. With this technology the director’s vision can more easily be realized where as if something doesn’t exist the way he sees it can be created. This is one of the 80s lasting legacies. When we’re looking back upon this decade we, of course, can’t forget some of the films that came out of the decade, but we must also remember that filmmaking was forever changed in this decade because ‘Special Effects’ became a term that we could apply to almost every film. A new cinematic tool was beginning to be fully realized and is still being perfected to this very day.

 Footnote and Work Cited:

1. The Empire Strikes Back won an Academy Award for Special Achievement in Special Effects. The following year it was a category at the awards, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Drangonslayer were nominated.


2. Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones Dir. George Lucas. Feat. Hayden Christiansen, Ewan Macgregor, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee. 2002, 20th Century Fox. DVD extra features.

Once Upon a Time in the 80s- Introduction (Part 1 of 17)

In his Biographia Literaria Samuel Taylor Coleridge* postulates how a critic’s faculties and tastes are influenced by his life experiences and exposure to art. I open with this statement because in writing about the 1980s a decade in which I was a child, I realize there can be a certain amount of filtering due to nostalgia or longing for ‘the good old days,’ thus, with each film I discuss in the 1980s I think it important to note when I first saw the film. Some have stood the test of time. Others are recent discoveries. I’m also trying to examine all of these films in a new light to ensure subjectivity.

I also think it’s important to note the genesis of this concept in my own reasoning as it has most definitely shifted. A little more than a year ago [as of this writing] I saw a film called Amazing Grace and Chuck for the first time and I thought to myself “This film could’ve only been made in the 80s.” I thought this both because of its aesthetics, the grain and milieu common to the 1980s. I started postulating upon that on my cornerstone on defining the 1980s noting that the 50s, 60s, and 70s had each had their own unique looks. I noted there was overlap such that early 80s films still looked like they were shot in the 70s. Yet this would be too technical and pedantic an approach. What really struck me about Amazing Grace and Chuck was the subject matter. And while you can’t pin down a decade as sporadic and variegated as the 80s (As opposed to the heavy focus on Sci-Fi in the 50s) you can see there were ideas buried even in these heavily Hollywoodized films. Yet I come to realize as I’ve viewed nearly 30 films for analysis that saying this is what the 80s were all about is folly. However, within the context of each individual film I can display a reflection of cinematic or social thinking at the time.

This is an overview of a decade of innovation. A decade where the blockbuster was ever more predominant than in the 1970s yet there seemed to be a last gasp of artistry. There were great films released amongst the garbage. Also, we would see the trends that would lead to the decline in quality in the 1990s. It was a decade with artists who still had a spark of idealism and still had something to say albeit through indirect channels.

While many of the films make connections to my youthful sensitivities, it is important to note that these films for the most part do not condescend or talk down to its intended audience which is a problem that has become more and more apparent as time has moved on. These are also films that for me have stood the test of time. Some of what was good in the eighties was adopted in the 90s and turned sour and what’s worse some of what was terrible also stayed and became worse. In this paper I will look at the motion picture in all its forms film, television, animation and the newly-invented, at the time, music video. No matter how you look at it the 80s did matter and I want to examine the decade here. It was a decade I grew up in it is true but now I can look back subjectively and examine a decade I’ve come to love.

* While primarily a poet and philosopher Coleridge wrote an abundance of dramatic criticism, introduced the term ‘suspension of disbelief’ to the artistic world, and is one of the most important concepts in cinema.

 Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments.

My Rating Scale

Since my post on lists not being complete, which is an essence an amendment to my initial manifesto, I have not written many reviews, but I will have cause to with 61 Days of Halloween coming up. Keeping that in mind, it has come to my attention, both through my own ruminating and from some comments, that there is a slight incongruity to my rating scale. I have changed it very slightly at the bottom end.

I have not yet, but may still, sample my scores and average them. I know I tend to grade generously and don’t really make apologies for that. However, I’ve realized that the top end definition doesn’t mesh with the bottom end. In short, it’s easier, by definition for a 10 to be assigned than a 1. More to the point, it’s been easier to assign a 2 than a 1. Therefore, both the definition for a 10 and a 1 now include references to best in the year and downplays all-time, since that’s hard to gauge instantaneously.

Here is the altered rating scale:

Below is my rating scale. I try to be as precise as possible in describing what each number signifies. If you need further clarification please feel free to leave a comment.

1. = Terrible, no redeeming qualities, one of the worst films of the year, occasionally ever.
2. =Awful but of some minute value- among the worst of the year.
3. =A film with one maybe two strong elements but overall unforgivably poor.
4. =A film with a few mistakes too big to overlook.
5. =Marginally bad, a film with it’s good points but ultimately suffering from a fatal flaw that prevents it from achieving decency.
6. =A mediocre film; not bad but nothing special.
7. =Better than average, definitely worth viewing.
8. =A standout film with promise that is not quite fulfilled.
9. =A film which is just an iota, a minor fix or two short of greatness.
10. =A great film. Best genre can achieve, contender for best of year & rarely all-time. There are gradations in all ratings.

A Reading and Review of The Turin Horse

Erika Bók in The Turin Horse (Cinema Guild)

NOTE: A film like this warrants discussion beyond a typical review. While some relevant plot details are discussed they are not what I’d deem spoilers.

Béla Tarr. Perhaps one of the most daunting things to contend with when writing about him or his films is trying to encapsulate him and/or his work for the uninitiated. For to write this review solely as the fan and devotee that I am would not do for all who may come across this article. The read of the film that rang true to me became apparent very quickly. However, the prior question nagged me. So how do I go about it? Carefully and with explication but not what I’d classify as a spoiler. Recently, upon viewing Fata Morgana I tweeted that I was glad it wasn’t my introduction to Herzog and that it likely should’ve been the last film of his I saw. With Tarr there really only is baptism by fire I feel and I’ll attempt, aside from reacting, to give a bit of a primer for his work. My baptism by fire occurred by acquiring and watching his seven-hour epic Satantango while in college and I’ve been hooked ever since.

This is as good a place as any to discuss the pace and a few other trademarks of Tarr’s work. Tarr has shot only black and white for the past 30 years. He moves the camera beautifully and intricately at times while using very long takes. I counted shots in this film and came up with a similar number to reports I read: 30. The running time is approximately 146 minutes meaning the average length of a take of about five minutes when Hollywood has us conditioned to expect cuts every five seconds, depending on genre. All the cuts are good, some are wonderful and the pace works for the tale but is worth noting for those who are unfamiliar with his work. Gird your attention span!

With regards to this film, as I started to watch it what struck me is that it seemed like his own version of Jeanne Dielman. This allusion to Chantal Akerman is not completely my own Scott Foundas in a Facets symposium on Tarr made the comparison that made me want to see Jeanne Dielman in the first place. However, while he’s talking stylistically in terms of camera movement, mise-en-scene and blocking; here the narrative in many ways resembles in that in Jeanne Dielman in as much as the film most reveals its characters and their story in the slow but steady deterioration of daily routines.

The setup is fascinating in two ways: First, the name of the film refers to the incident wherein Nietzsche supposedly lost his mind, he so felt for a horse being beaten by his owner that he broke down in tears, intervened and embraced the horse and was never the same. The story then is really about the owner of said horse and his daughter, however, I’d caution you not to forget about the horse and the title and watch him and his arc and the relationship the family has with him. Second, in a structural consideration the inciting incident occurs in a voice over wherein a detached, unidentified narrator tells us what happened and that propelled an unseen Nietzsche into madness and affected the horse and the family in the long run.

The film is above all indirect, even when seemingly being direct, which is part of its brilliance. The film is about the inevitability of death but it’s not spoken about in certain terms. The bare minimum these people need to do to survive starts to deteriorate as does their ability and willingness to live, mostly due to said uncommented upon inevitability.

Perhaps what works best is that it really creeps up on you. These routines play out repeatedly, shot and cut a little differently each time such that the slight changes at the start might not be picked up but then you start to see them.

With regards to moments that are direct there are a few ways to interpret them. Perhaps the pivotal scene where there can be some debate is one wherein their neighbor comes over because he’s run out of Palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy). It’s human nature to want to hang your hat on something when watching a story that’s not traditional, therefore when watching a father and daughter just doing what they do in a desolate countryside in the middle of an unnatural windstorm you listen to the neighbor’s wild theory. Ohlsdorfer, the father, dismisses it as bull and some reviews as a red herring, I feel the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

You don’t have to know Tarr’s cinema to start to sense that there’s a metaphysical nature being applied to a mundane setting, a sort of allegory free of dogmatic restraints. The neighbor’s theory on what’s wrong with the world and life in general may be only his mad formulation but his view, like anyone else, is all he has and everyone’s seeking an answer, we may change it, we may not have one but anyone’s guess is as valid as the next to questions like “What’s the point of all this? What’s going on? Why am I here?” The neighbor’s theory may be vague and labyrinthine but part of what tips it towards truth for me is that he made it a specific revelation to each individual and not an externalized event. I know I’ve have been aloof in the theory’s description because I think it’s open to individual interpretation. My inference that it’s closer to fact or fiction falls in line with my final interpretation, which deals directly with how the film ends, which I will not reveal.

Similarly oblique is the passage read from a book left as a gift by a band of Gypsies passing through for some water. However, in that it speaks of defiling of the Holy Land and damnation, in short inevitability, so it works. It connects to a theme rather than offering and epiphany, yet I did have one. Only as I was just walking out of the theatre after the very short closing credits did I realize the last domino that needed to fall for me and it did and it made the whole thing that much more amazing.

The film keeps its cast of characters small and the location virtually unchanging. It’s probably too claustrophobic to be called a chamber drama. That sense heightened by the sound editing and mixing which plays the persistent sound of the wind at just the right level to unnerve you and will then drop entirely to bring in Mihály Vig’s dichotomic score, half-mellifluous and half-discordant.

Another thing that bears mentioning that there’s next to no dialogue. Yes, there is the neighbor’s extended monologue which gets a few replies, curses thrown at the gypsies and occasional exchanges between father and daughter but no scene I would call a conversation scene and it’s all the better for it. The lack of the spoken word invites you to participate in the film more freely, draw your own conclusions.

The actors János Derzsi, Erika Bók and Mihály Kormos are all brilliant. The main tandem do so much physically and with their eyes they scarcely need dialogue to convey their emotions and turmoil.

The only other plot point that really bears any discussion is the attempt the Father and Daughter make to leave their house. You are not told or shown why they don’t make it to some safer locale. You are left to speculate on it. I drew my own conclusion, you may draw a different one. It’s just one of the other great touches this film has. Again it’s something that fits in my reading for the story, in a film about the inevitability of death what escape can there be, really?

It’s a bit sad to have to say that not all directors are what you can call visionaries but Tarr is definitely one. What you see on display in The Turin Horse is the mark of an artist. There is a style and language all his own, which he has cultivated through the years. I love Hungarian cinema from what I’ve been able to see but at the start of his career you wouldn’t know just by watching one of Tarr’s films it was his, now his style is unmistakable and inimitable, unique in all the world. If this is truly to be his last feature what a glorious way to go.

The Turin Horse is a flat-out masterpiece. That’s not a word I use lightly. There are films I consider masterpieces but I did not proclaim them as such upon first seeing them. However, when trying to encapsulate my reaction that’s the first word that came to mind. It truly is, it’s sheer brilliance and believe me when I say that my stating several facts in the course of this piece does not detract from the experience of the film, it’s just a guide. Watching and immersing yourself in it is a lot more valuable and harder to describe than a few instances in the story. If you have decided this is the kind of film you’d like to see (it’s certainly not for everyone) it’s worth seeking out on the big screen.

10/10

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Sociopolitical Overview (Part 2 of 17)

Photo Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis, The epitome of hope in the 80s: The fall of the Berlin Wall

When we think of the 90s sociopolitically you can almost draw a parallel to the kind of films that were produced. With Clinton in office the stock market more than doubled it was prosperity galore and yet there was a generation (Generation X followed by Y, how original) that could care less. There were hardly any films that reflected the times we were in because that would be bourgeois, no one really cared they had money in their pocket. Yet there was also nothing to escape unless you count the laughable Lewinsky affair, so film stagnated aside from the occasional blip here and there.

While the 80s were not like the 60s in that there was an issue constantly looming over everyone like the Vietnam War. There were several crucial events in America’s history. Films are the products of our society and the people writing those films for the most part came of age in the 60s and thus, had a higher social consciousness than those who grew up in the culturally devoid 70s.

Being children of the 60s coupled with the fact that escapist family-oriented cinema was in demand for a great part of the decade lead to many of these films having a lot of pie-in-the-sky idealism in them.
The 80s socially and politically were a mess. There was always something. New York was a crime-ridden dirty hole, which is reflected in Ghostbusters, and to some extent Trading Places. At the beginning of the decade there was the hostage crisis and the decade ended with the beginning of the communist collapse. While there were many crises and negative events there was a national sentiment in the nation and a presentiment that gave people a feeling that we could change things, amid all the excesses of the ‘me generation’ there was Hands Across America, Farm Aid and Artists for Africa which were movements by musicians that we could change the world and films like Amazing Grace and Chuck reflect that sentiment.

It was undoubtedly a turbulent time but there was a wind of change in the air. Reagan’s short-sightedness in his term is paralleled by the studio heads. Reagan wanted to give the taxpayers a break immediately and it hurt in the long run while the studios wanted money immediately and slowly the quality of films they were producing would dwindle. Thankfully, the quality did keep coming out until the end of the decade. The political conditions were all aligned for good, even great films to be made. Great films never come out in abundance when the nation is affluent. Pre-packaged hit-me films do, the 80s were a great time to grow up in because you probably weren’t aware of all that was going on around you. Yet I do recall seeing the possibility for change and seeing that something good can occur in this world and I saw it plastered across a large silver screen every weekend.

Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part two you can read part one here.

The Movie Rat’s Manifesto

Welcome to The Movie Rat. This blog’s name comes from a term I came up with for a friend of mine when we went to the movies every Saturday for a matinee and at least one other film. We were like mallrats except we went to the movies eventually he lost interest but I kept on going.

So a new blog and infinite possibilities and here there won’t be any annoying restrictions such as trying to keep one of the most universal artforms in the world “localized.”

What does one do when one sets out to start a new blog. Well, for the time being anyway, whatever one wants.

However, I am starting with this manifesto to let you know a few things I plan on doing and conversely not doing.

So here are some things you can expect and some things I will venture to avoid, five things in each category sounds like a decent start…

I will:

-Be re-posting older articles slowly but surely.

-Do daily themes such as: Monochromatic Monday, Two For Tuesday, Weird Wednesday, Theme Thursday and Film History Friday. These may change. I also Plan writing longer more theory-based papers from time to time. I have ideas for both Metropolis and Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe).

-Will offer “seasonally appropriate” reviews: For exampled, TCM is currently doing 31 Days of Oscar. From September 1 through October 31st there will be a glut of horror titles, from November 1st through Thanksgiving; foreign films and Christmas-themed (sometimes only slightly) in December.

-Always be looking for new and unique films as well as different ways of viewing and/or acquiring them and being a consumer advocate to an extent.

-Always write personally. No matter how informed one is I will not presume that my opinion is anyone else’s. I firmly believe in the assertion that no two people ever watch the same film and can only offer my views and interpretations and if I need to use a few “Me’s” and “I’s” to convey that so be it.

I will not:

– Discuss the MPAA here. Ratings exist for a reason but I personally do not care. The MPAA, if you visit their site (www.mpaa.org), will explain its reason(s) and other reviewers will give you their slant on the rating (I suggest: www.lights-camera-jackson.com – he is a kid who is also a professional critic and always includes how kid-friendly a movie is) but it is of no concern to me. I am not a parental aid I am only interested in aesthetics. I would not deign to judge what is and is not appropriate for your children that is a decision that all parents must make on their own based solely upon their values and what they believe their children should see, hear or can handle.

– Use the phrase “well-intentioned.” Few films, if any, have bad intentions.

– Avoid, at all costs, saying “it’s the best of its kind since such and such” for I am likely to have missed films of its ilk since such and such and you may disagree with my opinion of the former film and therefore I won’t adequately express my sentiments if that’s all I say.

– Since I discussed hyperbole above I will not say I am going to post something. I mentioned on more than one occasion on Examiner that I was planning on writing something about hyperbole in film criticism. And I was, but I never did.

– Confuse the person with the artist, or allow any other bias I may have, creep in without at least addressing it and letting you know that there is a grain of salt. Unless, it’s a first run or DVD review this will be a very positive site but unfortunately some movies are bad and it needs to be said, however, I do believe that in an overwhelming majority of them there is at least some redeeming quality.

I’m sure there’s probably more I can add. Suggestions would be more than welcome, for either category. Starting tomorrow the fun really starts.